Saving the Mississippi Sandhill Crane

Odd Jobs, People
on November 11, 2001

Scott Hereford has spent more than a decade working to save the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane, but he’s only wanted one thing in return from the birds: their fear.

It’s not that Hereford, a wildlife biologist and crane specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Gautier, Miss., has anything against the cranes. He’s just all too aware how close they came to extinction and wants to leave nothing—especially their instinctive caution—to chance.

Mississippi sandhill cranes, one of six subspecies of sandhill cranes, once could be found across coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Majestically large at roughly 4 feet tall with a 6-foot wingspan, the birds adapted to the wet pine savannas near the Gulf of Mexico, a unique ecosystem of low-growing grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers prone to natural fires that kept them vast and open.

Increased development and farming in the 1960s led to a drastic reduction of this environment, however, with disastrous consequences for the crane. “There’s only about 3 percent of that original acreage left,” Hereford says, “and that’s primarily the reason they’re endangered.”

At their all-time low in the 1970s, only about 30 to 35 cranes remained—with just a handful of breeding pairs. At that point the Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in under the direction of the late biologist Jake Valentine, establishing a 19,000-acre refuge across Gautier, Ocean Springs, Fontainebleau, and Bluff Creek that would be integral to the cranes’ survival. But land alone won’t prevent extinction.

Although famous for mating for life, the cranes supply few offspring. “Cranes aren’t very rapid breeders,” Hereford says, “so there’s no quick way to get their numbers up.” In fact, most breeding pairs produce one to two eggs at a time, from which only one chick usually fledges.

“Even the best pairs will raise only one chick every two or three years,” he says.

Hereford first came to work with the Mississippi sandhill cranes at the Putuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where the cranes breed in captivity. At about 6 months of age, young cranes are then released to the refuge in Mississippi, where they can live for upward of 15 years.

But maintaining an appropriate habitat has been the second—and more challenging—part of Hereford’s work. Even though the cranes have considerable space in which to spread their wings, so to speak, not all of it is the wet savanna they need.

Consequently, much of Hereford’s work today is land management—deciding which areas of the refuge need to be restored, where trees and brush need to be cleared, and when predators need to be removed (natural predators such as coyotes, foxes, and bobcats must be relocated periodically to give the cranes enough breathing room).

“It’s a really intensive year-round monitoring effort,” Hereford says.

Fortunately, human intervention has already made a significant impact on the Mississippi sandhill crane population. “We can’t help but be optimistic,” refuge manager Sabrina Keen says of the increased population, which now numbers more than 100, with 20 breeding pairs. “I’m fascinated by their ability to persevere.”

Hereford’s goal is a self-sustaining population between 140 and 170 cranes with 130 breeding pairs, numbers he thinks can be reached within the next 20 years.

“I think it’s cautiously hopeful,” he says. “The numbers are up, we know how to re-introduce the birds, and we’re steadily restoring the habitat back to a native savanna.”

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